Misremembering Mr. Lincoln

It’s the sesquicentennial today of Abraham Lincoln’s assassination by John Wilkes Booth at Ford’s Theater (Lincoln died the next day). It’s a good thing if politicians of both parties acknowledge the event and reminisce as they wish about the 16th president’s life and legacy. Certainly Republicans have the right to do so insofar as he at least nominally shared their affiliation. And it’s easy to make claims about what Lincoln stood for insofar as his presidency was entirely consumed with trying to avoid and then trying to win a Civil War that is unlike anything experienced by an American leader before or since.

Having said all that–I’m sorry, Marco Rubio’s op-ed at USAToday on Lincoln is just annoying. Yes, I understand, Rubio has just announced his presidential candidacy, so there’s no question he had the opportunity–and maybe even an obligation–to write about the first GOP president. But his effort to harness Lincoln, a very complicated man, to his own campaign themes is just too superficial and even disrespectful to ignore.

This starts off fine:

Lincoln was perhaps the most transformational figure in our history. He had the courage to measure America as it was against America as it was intended to be, and to recognize the terrible distance between our founding ideas and the reality of slavery.He aspired to reform government to empower all our people equally, to break the powerful hold slaveholders had over Washington and to break the chains of slavery itself.

But then it goes sideways:

In the century and a half since, America has proven that it can, in fact, endure. Each generation after Lincoln’s has carried on the tradition of bringing America one step closer to its founding ideal of equal opportunity for all. The result has been the rapid spread of the American Dream — a Dream that in its short history has transformed millions of lives and altered the course of human events.

And then he’s off into his “son of a bartender and a maid” story. But no, we haven’t had some sort of steady, even progress towards “equal opportunity for all.” There was this little matter of the restoration of White Supremacy in the South (and in parts of the North, too), and Jim Crow, and the civil rights struggle, and also–as you’d think Rubio would know–a constant struggle for immigrants’ rights against nativists. Indeed, he might have paid Lincoln tribute for resisting the inclusion of anti-immigrant provisions in the Republican Platform of 1860, despite the importance of the Know-Nothings to the original GOP “base.” But I guess that might bug Steve King or remind people Rubio hasn’t been so courageous on the subject lately.

But it’s this characterization of Lincoln that takes the cake:

Our current president ran for office on calls of opportunity and unity. He claimed the mantle of Lincoln. While his intentions were genuine, his presidency has only deepened our divisions and cost us opportunities. This is not because of a flaw in his character, but rather a flaw in his ideas.

His ideas tell us that becoming better off requires someone else becoming worse off. They tell us the only way to climb up the economic ladder is to pull someone else down. They tell us there are two Americas — one of haves, one of have-nots — and that government is the best hope for those in search of a better life

.

Lincoln constructed the Republican Party around the idea that we are one America, united by the belief that there is no limit to what our people can accomplish when all are given a fair shot. He carried the idea of a united America with him everywhere he went. I’m reminded of one stirring example in particular, from this very day 150 years ago.

The suit he wore to Ford’s Theater that evening was custom made for him, and in the lining of the jacket was a hand-stitched inscription. The inscription read, “One Country, One Destiny.”

Aside from the obvious mischaracterization of Obama’s “ideas,” it takes a lot of damn gall to lecture an African-American about Lincoln’s legacy, which was one of an “united America” achieved by violent suppression of a rebellion by people who sounded uncomfortably like many of today’s Republicans in their conceptions of liberty, states rights and Constitutional originalism.

Maybe mindless tributes to Lincoln are common in GOP circles. Remind me to pay attention to the lip service Republicans pay to the Great Emancipator in all those Lincoln Day dinners they hold. And without question, Democrats have similar problems at Jefferson-Jackson dinners. Both parties would do better to exchange founding leaders just as they’ve largely exchanged constituencies.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.